Renoir’s Last Years an Inspiration for Us All

Les Collettes”, The final winter home of the French Impressionist painter Pierre August Renoir (1841–1919) overlooks the Mediterranean Sea and the red tiled roofs of Cagnes-sur Mer, France. Renoir lived, painted and sculpted in Les Collettes during the last ten years of his life, when he was severely crippled by rheumatism and arthritis. The grounds and home are beautifully preserved. The courageous story of Renoir’s determination to paint while severely debilitated is awe inspiring.

Renoir’s doctor sent him south for this health, but it was the country lifestyle and beauty of the land which attracted him. There were orange groves, wild roses, and “silvery leafed, ancient and gnarled Olive trees.” With his wife and sons, he bought the fifty-one acre farm “Les Collettes”, and added tangerine trees, two vineyards, a vegetable garden, and built the elegant stone home which is now a museum.

Throughout the three storied home, there are numerous original paintings, and sculptures. An upstairs studio holds a partially completed painting of flowers which Renoir worked on, in bed, the day he died. Renoir’s paintings of this period are lush and warmly executed in reds and oranges, deep blues and greens. He painted landscapes, flowers, his children, friends, the model Gabrielle, and the rounded, sumptuous, young nudes for which he is well known. He completed “The Women Bathers”, now hanging at the Louvre Museum in Paris, considered by Renoir to be the culmination of his life’s work, and “The Judgment of Paris”, now part of the Hiroshima Museum of Arts collection.

Numerous black and white photographs throughout the home reveal Renoir’s severe disabilities. White bearded and gaunt, he sits hunched over in a wheel chair; his hands are folded into fists, his fingers curled inward, showing only enlarged and deformed knuckles. White tape encircles each fist and a paint brush sticks out. Renoir’s Jean son writes “a little piece of cloth was inserted into the sore and tender hollow of his hand to prevent contact with the wooden handle of the brush,” and Renoir’s “twisted fingers gripped rather than held the brush.” Additional photos show Renoir being carried in his “sedan chair” to a specially constructed outdoor studio which protected him and enabled him to continue painting outdoors.

Jean writes, “the accident which was to turn my father’s life into a martyrdom was a fall from a bicycle in 1897.” Renoir broke his arm, and the accompanying pain gradually turned into to a crippling, painful disability which spread to his legs, and finally deformed his hands.

Initial treatments of the day included purges, a medication called “Antipyrin” and physical exercises. Renoir enjoyed juggling and billiards because they exercised his hands, enabling him to paint. However he repeatedly refused medical interventions that would take time away from his painting and particularly disliked walking exercises. Following a period of rehabilitative therapies and his Doctor’s urgings, he stated “I give up; it takes all my will power… If I have to choose between walking and painting, I’d rather paint.”

Towards the end, his thinness and skin wounds put him in constant pain. Touching the bed sheets at night was torture, and sitting in his wheel chair felt like fire. The only object he could pickup was his paint brush. Jean Renoir states “the more intolerable his suffering became, the more Renoir painted.”